At a glance
- Cannabis farms have been found in commercial, industrial and residential buildings – including vacant and tenanted properties
- Criminal gangs often cause substantial property damage when growing cannabis, leaving landlords with repair bills that can run into many thousands of pounds
- We discuss the scale of the problem, the common warning signs of cannabis cultivation, and the steps landlords can take to manage the risks
Cannabis is the most widely used illegal drug in the UK. Latest figures for England and Wales show that 17,699 kgs of herbal cannabis, cannabis resin and 318,988 cannabis plants, were seized by Police in 99,779 seizures in 2016/17′.
Much of this cannabis is grown in the UK, both on a large scale in industrial and commercial premises, but also increasingly, in smaller residential properties too.
Commercial-scale cultivation of the drug – in so-called ‘cannabis farms’ – is a risk all landlords should be aware of, as it can often lead to significant property damage and loss of rental income.
“Many landlords aren’t aware of the extent of the problem, or how to spot the warning signs,” says Richard Geary, Risk Analyst, Zurich.
Why cannabis cultivation leads to property damage
Property damage can occur in a number of ways.
Intruders will sometimes damage or destroy walls in order to make room for the large equipment required for their cannabis growing operation, which can also lead to the release of asbestos.
There is also a significant risk of fire. Cannabis growers will typically use a large number of hot lamps, often plugged in to overloaded electricity sockets. Zurich has also handled claims where fires have broken out in the roof voids of residential blocks of flats – where no fire detection equipment was in place – during the process of growing cannabis.
Cannabis farms also frequently involve extensive watering systems, meaning escape of water is another risk. In addition, large quantities of the highly flammable gas butane are sometimes used to create butane hash oil – a form of super-strength cannabis – resulting in a number of explosions in recent years.
“People operating cannabis farms do not tend to be particularly worried about safety,” says Richard. “Once they have occupied a building, they just want to set up their cannabis operation as quickly as possible.”
Clean-up costs and legal implications
As well as the cost of repairing any structural damage, landlords can also be faced with sizable bills for cleaning their properties and removing the equipment used to grow cannabis.
“Landlords also need to consider the potential impact on their rental income, as it may take several weeks to restore a property to a condition where it is suitable to let,” says Richard.
There could also be personal implications for any landlord deemed to have turned a blind eye to cannabis being grown on their property. Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, any landlord or letting agent who allows their rental property to be used for production or supply of controlled drugs could face up to 14 years in prison.
It is extremely important, therefore, that landlords are able to spot the warning signs of cannabis cultivation, and take appropriate steps to prevent it.
Warning signs of cannabis cultivation
Indicators of possible cannabis growth could include:
- A sweet, pungent smell in or around the property
- Condensation on windows (or windows being blacked-out)
- Evidence that electrical wiring has been tampered with (to bypass the mains)
- Unexpected noise levels (e.g. from extractor fans)
- A significant increase in electricity usage
- Powerful lights in operation day and night
- Lots of bagged rubbish being left outside the property
The way tenants interact with their landlord may also offer clues, says Richard. “If the tenant offers to pay several months’ rent up front, in cash, that could be an indicator they don’t want to give the landlord a reason to visit the property.”
Security measures and background checks
If a property is vacant, it is important to ensure it is properly secured and that regular checks are made. It can take up to 15 weeks to harvest a cannabis crop – so regular checks should pick up the warning signs of cannabis cultivation.
Regular inspections are equally important if a property is being leased. It is also important to carry out robust background checks on prospective tenants, and requests to pay rent or deposits in cash should be refused.
Any landlord who suspects their property is being used for cannabis cultivation should not approach the tenants directly, but should instead contact their local police force or Crimestoppers.
Zurich has prepared a detailed cannabis risk guide offering more information about the warning signs and extra tips on how to reduce the risk of properties being used to grow cannabis.
For more information, please get in touch with your local Zurich contact.